Ten Things: How In-House Lawyers Can Reduce Stress (in an Overly Stressful Job)

Throughout my legal career, I have been pretty fortunate when it comes to good health, both physically and mentally.  I have a knack for managing deadlines and have always been able to crank out work pretty much as needed.  Still, like everyone, there are times when I feel overwhelmed by the weight of what is on my plate. And, the higher up you are on the food chain, the more pressing the weight becomes as more and more people rely on you to come through (e.g., your team, fellow employees/clients, senior management, the board of directors, shareholders).  It can be a lot of pressure, which is just another word for stress.  For me, stress usually manifested itself in clenching my jaw (which required that I wear a splint) or migraine headaches.  The latter I can say without hesitation truly suck.  I know I am not alone, especially in the legal profession, as lawyers typically are more susceptible to stress and depression than most any other field.  The work and deadlines take their toll not only on the lawyer, but on their family as well.

Why am I focusing on all of this unpleasantness you ask?  Because I just realized that May is now mental health month.  And while Hallmark has not taken over the festivities (yet), it is an excellent time to take stock of our own mental health and, for in-house lawyers, that of the legal department as a whole.  Over the years, I have learned some things about preserving my mental health in an incredibly stressful job.  Most of the time I just sucked it up and kept any issues to myself, I realize now that that is exactly the wrong type of behavior.  I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.  But, this edition of “Ten Things” discusses some ways in-house lawyers can reduce stress with things I have done and still do, as well as things I wish I had done (or done more of). I’ll try not to get preachy, and I hope there are a few things here that will help you deal with the massive amount of crap that comes over the transom every day in the in-house world; a world where there is never enough money, time, or manpower to do the job:

1.  Recognize the symptoms of serious problems.  The most important thing any of us can do when it comes to stress and mental well-being is to recognize when things are not right.  It comes down to self-awareness and your ability (or willingness) to recognize that something is seriously wrong, with you or a colleague.  Here are some of the most common warning signs of high levels of stress on the body:

  • Substance abuse (drugs, tobacco, alcohol, over-eating).
  • Feeling moody, nervous, restless, or agitated most of the time.
  • A sense of impending panic or of being overwhelmed, often accompanied by frequent sweating.
  • Insomnia/difficulty sleeping.
  • Grinding teeth/clenched jaw.
  • Serious procrastination and/or a sense of being “stuck.”
  • Increased heart rate and/or rapid breathing.
  • Feeling constantly tired (or weak).
  • Loneliness and desire to avoid others.
  • Frequent headaches/migraines.
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than “problems.”

The above all sounds pretty awful, right?  Take some time to think about yourself or someone in the department and whether they frequently exhibit any or many of these traits.  It could be a sign that you or they need some help.

2.  Get the physical right.  Stress and depression frequently manifest themselves through physical problems.  While it sounds a bit trite, mental health starts with physical health.  In other words, you must focus on the physical to help the mental part of your life.  As the saying goes, “If you don’t make time for wellness, you will need to make time for illness.” Here are some key things to do to help manage/lower stress:

  • Breathe – many of us have no idea how to breathe “correctly.”  But, long, deep breathes through the nose and from the diaphragm will almost immediately start to lower your heart rate and your stress level.  It takes practice though.  I try to stop what I am doing every hour and spend three or four minutes focused on my breathing and then double my efforts to be conscious of whether I am consistently breathing correctly – I’m usually not.
  • Sleep – one of the first things lawyers toss to the side is sleep.  We stay up late and we get up early to try to finish critical projects or just to get caught up (though you should realize by now the latter is fool’s gold).  You can be sleep-deprived for a while and still perform but it will catch up with you.  A seriously sleep-deprived in-house lawyer is not effective and is prone to mistakes.  Develop a realistic sleep routine and stick to it.  It’s rare that whatever you are working on cannot wait until the morning.
  • Exercise – I am not talking about hard-core hit the gym every morning exercise (though that is great for you if you can pull it off).  Instead, you can get a lot of benefits by simply working on your posture, stretching, walking, or otherwise just getting away from your computer.  Walking just 30 minutes a day at a normal pace can bring you tremendous health benefits.  Simply stretching for 10 minutes a day can take the stress out of your muscles.  Step away from the computer at least once every hour and watch your posture when sitting.  There is a lot here, so check out Exercise: The Best Stress Relief for more ideas.
  • Eat better – even small changes in diet can improve your stress levels (and your health generally).  When we get stressed or feel pressed for time, we all tend to eat poorly.  I am not sure why, but pizza always seems way better than a salad when you are in the middle of big contract negotiation.   But, mom was right, you are what you eat so figure out a way to get a least one “healthy” meal in during the day even if you have to bring your lunch from home (which is what I did for years).  Intermittent fasting is another way to potentially reduce stress and bring clarity to thought.[1]  Drinking more water is an easy change to make with a huge health upside. Besides enjoying the benefits of simply eating better, there are foods and supplements shown to specifically help reduce stress.  Check out Eat Right, Drink Well, Stress Less for more.
  • Do something you like – sometimes you just need to get lost in something that you really enjoy.  For many, it’s music or watching funny videos on YouTube and having a laugh.  For others, it’s socializing a bit at work.  Don’t eat lunch alone at your desk every day – get out of the office once or twice a week (or at least with a group of friends down to the cafeteria).  Call up your significant other or a friend and catch up for 15 or 20 minutes. Taking your mind off of problems can allow you to re-set and come back a bit refreshed and ready to dig in.  When you are home at night, put down the phone, get away from your laptop, and spend some time with your family.  Find a movie or television show everyone is excited about and disappear for two hours.  The world will not end if you are enjoying the Lion King with your five-year-old, or binging Ozark with your spouse, vs. sending emails to clients who aren’t going to read them until sometime tomorrow anyway – if then.

3.  Stop setting/accepting false deadlines.  One of the biggest sources of stress for in-house lawyers is deadlines, or the common belief that everything they are working on is urgent and critical.  Guess what – it’s not!  You can greatly reduce your stress level by working with the business to set reasonable deadlines for projects and getting flexibility on those deadlines when needed.  The problem starts with the fact that lawyers almost always underestimate how long something will take to do.  From there, we make promises about deadlines without spending any time to scope the project.  Then, we feel obligated to meet the made-up deadline we set so we stress out and shift to hyper-drive to do whatever it takes to meet that deadline.  And rinse and repeat.  On the other hand, we often accept deadlines set by the business that have no basis in reality or need, i.e., they just pulled a date out of their asses.  Sometimes you have to just lump the false deadline, especially if it is from the CEO or board of directors.  But, more often than not you can take advantage of the slack that is built into all systems and negotiate deadlines that make sense.  Start by taking time to scope out projects sent to you before setting or agreeing to any deadlines.  Ask the business when do they think they “truly” need something (versus just picking a deadline with no thought).  But, have the conversation before just blindly agreeing to a deadline. Lastly, you do not need to be the only one meeting crazy deadlines.  How often do colleagues, outside counsel, or others come to you with a request to move a deadline?  I bet it’s a lot.  And I bet that you almost always accommodate the request.  You can likely get the same flexibility in return – if you simply ask.  The trick is to ask early and not an hour before something is due.  If you see things are stacking up, carve out some time to try to rearrange deadlines and manage expectations.  Don’t be a hero and default to staying up all night or working all weekend to get something finished that will likely sit in someone’s inbox for several days unmolested and unread.

4.  Ask for help (part 1).  When those stress-packed moments arrive, one thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone.  If you are part of a larger legal department, there will be plenty of opportunities to ask for some help with your workload.  But, you have to ask.  There is little need to allow yourself to get buried with work and there is no shame in reaching out for help with projects.  Start with your manager, but you may have strong enough relationships with colleagues that you can ask if anyone is available to help with some of your projects.  Generally, almost anyone with some available time is happy to help out a work colleague.  But, this runs both ways and there may be a time when someone is asking you for help.  In my last blog post, I discussed that one of the benefits of huddle meetings is the opportunity to say either you need help or that you can help.  Additionally, if you are a manager or the general counsel, consider bringing on some temporary lawyers to help when the workload is clearly weighing on your team.  The rise of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs)[2] is providing more and more opportunities to add firepower to your team without adding headcount or busting the budget.  The benefits of bringing on a temporary head or two for a month or so far outweigh the cost of someone going out on sick leave to deal with their stress or, worse, quitting. Lastly, learn to delegate properly.  I have written on delegation in past posts, and here are the three keys:

  • Yes, you can do it faster yourself – that’s not the point.  Delegation is playing the long game, i.e., pushing work you already know how to do onto the plate of someone who needs to/can learn it.​
  • Delegation done right takes work by both parties – learn how to be a good coach/delegator and be a good “learner​” when someone wants to delegate work to you.
  • Focus on the “results,” not on the “how”​ (you can guide them, but let your people figure out how they want to do something – don’t micro-manage them).

5.  Ask for help (part 2).  This one is harder, especially for lawyers who often take great pride in their ability to suck it up and work harder and longer than anyone else (yep, that was me for way too long).  But, when things get bad, sometimes you need to ask for a different kind of help, before things truly spiral out of control.  The good news is that there are more resources than ever for anyone needing help dealing with stress or other mental health issues:

  • Most employers have free employee assistance programs that you can access.  They also offer classes (in-person or online) to help employees manage stress and related issues.
  • Many health insurance plans offer mental health/stress reduction services.
  • The ABA or your local/state bar association often have services aimed specifically at lawyers.
  • If you have the resources, and many lawyers do, professional help is available privately as well.
  • Sometimes, even simple things can help like smartphone apps aimed at stress management, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques.  For a list, check out 13 of the Best Apps to Manage Your Stress, Mental Health Apps, or 20 Apps to Combat Anxiety or Stress.  There is also “WoeBot” an A.I. counselor that is free to use.
  • Your employer may offer other types of training programs that can help reduce stress and anxiety, such as time-management courses.
  • Sometimes, just having someone to talk to can be helpful.  Find that trusted colleague, mentor, or significant other you can unburden yourself to.

6.  Create a mental health policy.  More companies have or are creating mental health policies, i.e., specific HR policies that help the company manage the mental health of its employee base and provide guidance for how managers should deal with employees facing such issues (and the resources available to both employees and managers).  If your company doesn’t have one or is resistant, create your own just for the legal department.  Start by working with the HR team.  Then get the buy-in from the C-Suite.  There are plenty of statistics out there to show the value of treating mental health issues just as you would if someone came down with the flu or was in a car accident, i.e.,  sympathy and the desire to “help” would overflow.  It should not be any different for mental health issues, including getting rid of the stigma so unfairly attached to the issue. Within the department, the general counsel should use time at a department meeting or an offsite to acknowledge that working in-house is a stressful job and it’s okay to raise your hand and say you need some help.[3]  Go through the resources that are available and begin the process of creating an environment where the legal department (and hopefully the rest of the company) treats mental health and wellness like we do any sickness or physical injury.  Ensure department leaders are trained in what to look for in terms of the signs that someone is simply not okay.  The easiest way to do this?  Simply ask people how they are doing and if they need anything.  This small bit of concern can head off serious problems.

7.  Use your vacation time for vacation.  I had a fantastic in-house lawyer who worked for me a few years back and I remember one of our first conversations.  She said, “I am going out on vacation and I will not be checking emails.”  My initial thought was that she was crazy, but the more I thought about it I came to realize she was right.  Every in-house lawyer’s mental health and physical well-being hinges in part on their ability to check out for a while and simply relax.  If you are working each day, every day, even on “vacation,” then you are – ultimately – doing yourself and the legal department no good.  You will either burn out or leave.  Now, I understand that it is unlikely that any in-house lawyer can completely ignore work while out of the office, but I do regret not doing everything in my power to minimize the intrusion of work while I was supposed to be giving my full attention to my family – and myself.  I had to be the “hero” and be available if the Bat-Phone rang, constantly scouring email just in case I was “needed.”  What did I get for my heroics?  Jack shit.  No one cared.  I was just another idiot putting work above everything else.  Over time, I have learned to better compartmentalize work while on vacation, i.e., try to set aside just an hour in the early morning and sometime before bed to check through emails and voice mails to see if something truly needs my attention.  If not, it can either wait or I can delegate it to someone.  It took me way too long to learn this lesson.  Don’t be an idiot (like me).

8.  Learn the power of little things.  A few months back I wrote about the power of “little things,” i.e., how making small progress on things can add up to big achievements.  While the focus of that blog was on productivity, a quote I shared bears directly on today’s topic:

“Small wins can give people an enormous boost emotionally, and can really raise their level of intrinsic motivation for what they’re doing and lead to creativity. So in one of our studies, as we analyzed these data, we found that if people are experiencing progress in their work, they’re much more likely to feel emotionally positive about themselves and about what they’re doing. Under those conditions, they’re more likely to come up with a creative idea.” (emphasis added).[4]

What Professor Amabile notes is that people simply feel better about themselves and their work situation when they are getting things done, even if the progress is small.  In other words, focus on making progress (any progress) on work every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes on Project X.  You will, in fact, feel better.  Fifteen minutes is better than zero (and so on)!  Put in what you can, because moving the needle even a little will pay off mentally.  I also became a convert to a “to-do” of three things to start each day.  Sure, we all have way more than three things to work on but you cannot work on everything, and spinning your wheels trying to tick things off your to-do list is a waste of time and brainpower. Instead, start each day by making a list of the three most important things you want to make progress on today and focus your efforts on those things.  By focusing your efforts on a short list of things you will likely make progress on one or more of them.  Any progress = better mental health.

9.  Stop saying “yes” to everything.  Some days I feel like confessing, “Hi.  My name is Sterling and I am a ‘yes-a-holic.’”  If you ask me to do something, my mind immediately races to find a way to say, “Sure, throw that on the pile. No problem.”  When, actually, it’s a big problem as my pile just keeps getting bigger.  Many of you probably do the same thing.  I wish there was a 12-Step program for us because one sure way to reduce stress and improve your mental outlook is to stop saying yes to everything that comes your way.  I have gotten somewhat better – but I fall off the wagon so many times I need to start wearing a helmet.  Still, I have learned that saying yes to everything is not a requirement to succeed in-house.  But, you cannot say no to everything (and you have to have a good reason for saying no).  Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • It’s hard to say “no.”  Especially when you are a lawyer and your job revolves around helping people.  Don’t feel there is something wrong with you just because you find it difficult to say no.
  • Not saying yes does not always mean no.  It may just mean “not now.”  Sometimes it pays to level with folks that you simply don’t have the bandwidth at the moment and ask if they can wait on their project by suggesting a different time frame.  Whatever you do, keep the explanation short, simple, and truthful.  Don’t go into all of your woe and misery.
  • Before saying no or not now, talk to your boss and ask if they have any ideas on how best to juggle the different requests you are getting and how to prioritize them.  If things are crazy, your boss should step up and give you clear directions on what to work on and what to put on hold and (most importantly) be willing to take the heat from anyone upset about how things are prioritized in the legal department.
  • Find someone else who can help. This is not like pawning off a sales call on a poor unsuspecting colleague.  You may actually know that someone on the team has some bandwidth and may be able to help out immediately. Or, what you are being asked to do may not be in your wheelhouse, a perfectly good reason for a corporate lawyer to say no to handling a litigation matter.  And, you may have the ability to outsource some requests to outside counsel.  We kept a roster of solo lawyers who could inexpensively handle overflow legal requests that we could not get to but that were important.
  • Is the matter ripe for legal review?  Have they spoken with all the right people (finance, IT, operations, etc.)?  If not, you can say no by simply noting that they have some work to do before the matter is ready for legal review.
  • Don’t be a jerk about it.  You can say “no” politely.  I know you’re probably tired and a bit irritable some days but don’t just blurt out “No f&^%ing way, pal” if someone comes knocking on your door (admittedly, I didn’t always add “pal”).  Give them a few minutes to explain the request, what they are looking for, and the deadline.  Ask some probing questions so you have all the facts and the parameters of the request.  Then, you can more accurately say no or not right now but here are some alternative ideas.

10. Resources.  In addition to the various hyperlinks above, there are a lot of great resources out there to help you reduce stress and keep your mental health intact.  Here are just a few:

I am sorry this all so U.S.-focused.  I did search for resources globally but without much luck.  If you know of some, please share them in the comments section.[5]

*****

It is easy to poke fun at “Mental Health Month,” but it is pretty serious business.  Most importantly, if you feel like you need some help, go get it.  Don’t lie to others or yourself.  There is no shame in asking for help, especially in a profession as stressful as ours.  Recognize the symptoms and work every day at doing things to better manage your workload (and the stress that goes with it).  If you are a manager, be watchful of your team.  Make sure you address mental health with them and encourage everyone to come forward if they need help or are suffering – including yourself. Make creating a policy (for the company or the department) a goal in 2021.  Besides helping employees, focusing on mental health issues reduces absences, increases productivity, and puts less pressure on others on the team.  As a team member, the same things apply.  Be observant and know that it takes just a few minutes to ask someone if they are okay or if they need any help.  If you have the bandwidth and see that someone is drowning, offer a hand.  You may need to same favor down the road.   Finally, sometimes you just need to take a mental health day and not worry about work.  Do it.  If you are here in the USA today, it is a holiday so put away your cape and stop working.  I am!

Sterling Miller

May 31, 2021

My fifth book is almost finished.  It should be out later this year. Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale at the ABA website (including as e-books).  As the ABA says, “Don’t make us hunt you down.  Buy the damn books!” Trust me.  Don’t mess with the ABA!

Cover

I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.  If you have questions or comments, ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net or, if you would like a CLE for your team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com.

[1] It also means less calories into your system which is a good thing in and of itself.

[2] Stayed tuned on ALSPs as they will be the subject of a future “Ten Things” post.

[3] An interesting idea is to proactively offer members of the legal department “mental health” days – a day to simply wander off and re-charge.  More and more companies are doing the same thing across the company.

[4] See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-small-wins-matter-daniel-goleman/ (interview with Professor Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School).

[5] Another idea I had was to ask your outside counsel if their firms have access to, or know of, any resources.  See, e.g., the Allen & Overy firm’s Minds Matter program.

5 comments

  1. Great post, as always. On #7 I would go further and aim to take at least one “real” vacation per year where you don’t check any work email or messages the whole time, or at least for 4-5 days. Better yet – while you’re at it keep off social media and the news as well, and pretend your phone is a “dumb” phone designed only to communicate with your spouse and whoever you’re else you’re vacationing with. If you must, tell your boss to call or text if there’s a real emergency (and I’ll bet real money you won’t get a call). Don’t half-ass this by “just quickly checking email” – because once you open that Pandora’s box you’re mentally sucked back into to all the craziness.

    I don’t always succeed here but I find that after going several days completely removed from work, my mind gets into a much different place from the daily grind or even the usual long weekend. I come back more than just refreshed, but with a sense of perspective.

    Like

  2. Stress and anxiety is obvious when you are in a in an excessively stressful job. So it is must to recognize stress and mental well-being when things are getting erroneous. One must focus on the physical to help the mental part of your life.
    Really a great post it cover up all the things that can help someone to get out of stress.
    Helpful stuff Keep posting, looking forward to read more …

    Like

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